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1901 Boston Time Capsule Provides A Lesson In Curating History


A hundred and thirteen years ago citizens of the city of Boston put together a time capsule. The governor was involved, the mayor was involved, the local paper. They loaded it up with letters, news articles and photographs, it was a big deal. They hid it in a copper box and hid the box in the statue of a lion on top of the old Massachusetts state house. Then it was forgotten. Fast forward a century and no one knew the time capsule was still there. Until a descendent of the copper smith who sealed it up found a letter mentioning it. It turned out a Boston Globe story from 1901 detailed its contents, noting they should, quote, "prove interesting when the box is opened many years hence." The president of the Bostonian Society Brian LeMay says they brought down the statue and went into the lion's head and found at least one surprise.

BRIAN LEMAY: When we opened the lid on the time capsule the thing that was most apparent was a mysterious red volume and that was something that was not included in the list of the contents from the old newspaper article that we'd unearthed.

CORNISH: This red volume, meaning this is a book you haven't opened up yet.

LEMAY: It's a - well, we just opened it up and looked at the spine, and for some reason 113 years ago they inserted the - let's see - "Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States," 1896. Evidently it's part of a series that's issued by the Government Printing Office. And the thing that I find most intriguing is a letter to posterity that's sealed in an envelope. We still haven't seen it yet - written by journalists here in Boston at the time who evidently gave some thought to what would be significant and of interest to people hundreds of years from that day.

CORNISH: It seems as though it's a very formal time capsule. There was (laughter) no kind of regular Joe items. It sounds like this was in the grip of the elites?

LEMAY: You know, we here at the Bostonian Society were inclined to be a bit amused by the whole process. It didn't seem to us that this was the most historically significant thing about the sculpture or about the building that's underneath it, but after we'd ordered another beer we all seemed to agree that this time capsule is in some ways emblematic of the work that we all do as public historian. Trying to figure out what's significance of the time and what's going to be of interest to people in years hence. The striking thing about the contents is how good condition they seem to be. So the stuff inside of it seems to be brand-new. It's as if it was put in there yesterday and has somehow reached us from a century ago in exactly the same condition that it is now.

CORNISH: So after you guys had some more beers, (laughter) did you think about what you thought should be in the next time capsule?

LEMAY: Well, some of the things that we're going to put inside, we know for certain at this point - a metal from the Boston Marathon last year, and of course we are going to include photographs and letters from public officials. How could we not? But also some things that seem to represent the times - some kind of electronic device and a list of the prices that things cost for normal staples today.

CORNISH: Well, Brian LeMay thank you so very much for speaking with us.

LEMAY: Well thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Brian LeMay is president of the Bostonian Society. He says an archivist is carefully going through the time capsule from 1901. So stay tuned, history nerds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.